The second presidential debate of the year kicked off last night, and once again, sparks flew. The topic discussed with the most ferocity is a high-profile issue affecting universities all over North America: free speech on campus.
Mitchell Pratt, presidential candidate for Team PrattChang, stated that he draws the line at violence. He said universities are places for open discourse and discussion, so long as it's done in a peaceful manner.
On the other hand, Ocean Enbar, presidential candidate for Team Ocean, took a hard-line stance, saying that clubs that promote hate or discrimination have no place on campus.
“If you are going to tell a woman on campus that she does not have a right to her own body, then you are not welcome at Western [University],” said Enbar. His statement was well-received by the audience, and it's worth pointing out that Enbar didn't buckle under pressure from the moderator. Despite several followup questions, he held firm, showing the audience he meant what he said.
Still, his statement wasn’t particularly nuanced — a nice soundbite, reminiscent of Prime Minister Trudeau’s comment on his gender-balanced cabinet, “Because it’s 2015." While many of us who are pro-choice can say Enbar's proposal intuitively seems favourable, it has deeply problematic implications.
Who, for example, would decide whether a club — such as Western Lifeline, a University Students' Council sanctioned, secular, pro-life club — should get booted off campus or is simply controversial? What standards would they be held to and by whom? When one group, such as the USC, gets to decide what's permissible and what's not, exercises in authority can conceivably be driven by political considerations — a dangerous situation.
Pratt’s statement, too, deserves some examination. “Violence” is quite a nebulous term: does this only pertain to physical violence? Enbar brought up the example of the anti-abortion protests on campus — if a student who has had a distressing experience with abortion walked past some of their imagery, they might be legitimately traumatized. Does that constitute as “violence”? By Pratt’s criteria, would that be allowed on campus?
While clubs promoting hate speech should be kept off campus (a white supremacy group or a Holocaust-denier association, for example), there are many cases (including Western Lifeline) where the distinction is not so clear. There are compassionate reasons to be pro-life, held sincerely by some anti-abortion protesters — this, alongside Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, means they should be allowed to engage in free speech on campus.
Ultimately, the best way to engage with uncomfortable or ugly topics is to engage in respectful conversation with your opposition; to ignore or censor these ideas altogether only results in more polarization and hatred. Tough conversations challenge echo chambers, potentially exposing people to broader perspectives. Enbar said that the purpose of university is to provide safe spaces for students, but this should not come at the cost of a free exchange of ideas. Scrubbing the campus clean of offensive viewpoints may help students know what to think but likely not how to think.
Both presidential slates, while signalling laudable ideals, raised important questions about the future of free speech on campus if elected; the intricacies of which, in a university of all places, deserve investigation.